The Australian federal election is being held on August 21. The current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced the election on July 17, a couple of weeks after she replaced Kevin Rudd as leader of the Labor Party. The (very brief) election campaign is in full swing, with various issues coming to the forefront of the debate. In particular, the approach that should be taken to handling the numerous asylum seekers that try to enter Australian territory by boat is one issue that gives rise to heated discussion, as well as raising some interesting legal questions.
I wrote an article for the Global Legal Monitor a couple of months ago that covered some of the recent developments in this area, including amendments to people smuggling laws (on a side note – a Western Australia court this week convicted a man of people smuggling for facilitating the passage of asylum seekers on two boats in 2001).
A lot of the debate in the lead up to the election has been about where people who seek to enter Australia by boat should be held while their applications for refugee status are processed. Under the previous Coalition government the main facility was in Nauru, but the Labor Party moved away from this so-called “Pacific Solution” when it won the 2007 election. Processing now takes place on the Australian territory of Christmas Island, situated in the Indian Ocean.
Last month it was reported that the Labor government had approached East Timor about setting up a “regional processing center” there. The policy of the Opposition, however, is to quickly reopen the detention center in Nauru (with Nauru saying it is willing and able to do this).
The Labor Party has concerns about the fact that Nauru isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention (and about how the Pacific Solution was viewed internationally, including by the UNHCR) and thinks that Australia should work more with the UNHCR and with other countries in the region to assist with resettling refugees.
On the other hand, the Opposition argues that offshore processing should be resumed as part of a broader approach to deterring people smugglers and to maintaining the security of Australia’s borders, and that Nauru is the obvious option for this and respects the principles of the Refugee Convention.
A summary of (and links to) the proposals of each party can be found here. I’m sure a number of other countries and various international organizations will be watching what happens in this area as events unfold.